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United Airlines Monitoring Omicron Variant-Driven Restrictions, but Hasn't Adjusted Schedules

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Officials with United Airlines say that new travel restrictions imposed on flights to several African nations have not yet led to any adjustments to the airline’s schedule, with the company set to operate new flights to those countries in coming days.

In recent days, President Joe Biden announced new restrictions on travel from several African countries as a result of the emergence of the omicron COVID variant. As of Monday, the U.S. will reinstitute a ban on travel for foreign nationals from a total of eight countries, including South Africa.

United States citizens and lawful permanent residents will be exempt from the Level 4 travel restriction, according to the State Department.

In a statement to NBC 5, United Airlines says that it is monitoring how the new travel restrictions will impact demand for flights, but says that it has not made any adjustments to its schedule.

According to the airline, United operates five flights per week between New York/Newark and Johannesburg, South Africa. It also operates three flights per week between Washington, D.C. and Accra, Ghana.

The airline will launch its new offering of flights between Washington, D.C. and Lagos, Nigeria beginning Monday, the same day that the travel restrictions will go into effect. Service between New York and Cape Town, South Africa will resume on Dec. 1, the airline said.

Currently, there have been no reported cases of the omicron variant in the United States, according to the CDC. Even still, officials are preparing for the variant to eventually arrive in the U.S.

“I would not be surprised if it is (already here),” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said. “We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places…it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

According to officials, the omicron variant has been observed in numerous countries, including the U.K., Belgium and Israel.

In addition to the United States, the European Union is also announcing pauses on flights to and from southern Africa as a result of the variant.

While not much is known about the omicron variant, initial research suggests that the variant has a large number of mutations to its spike proteins. The variant also has shown to produce an increased risk of reinfection compared to other strains.

What is not clear is whether the variant shows any increased resistance to currently-available vaccines, although Moderna says it is currently working on a omicron-targeted booster shot should the need arise for one. That treatment could be available early next year.

It also is not clear whether the omicron variant causes worse health outcomes than other strains of the virus. Studies are underway on numerous fronts in the pushback against omicron, and more data will likely become available in coming weeks.

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